Using ideas from Paul Hiebert’s Transforming Worldviews, we talked the last time I wrote about how modernity led the Western church to obsess about time and punctuality. Along the same lines, Western churches often emphasize cleanliness and order.
Hiebert observes about modernity in general:
Cleanliness in modernity is defined primarily in terms of high order: of keeping categories uniform. Flowers in the grass are weeds, earth on the sidewalk is dirt, and spoons in the fork bin are out of place. Categories must also be clearly bounded. Pictures, windows, and doors should have frames setting them off, cracks in the wall should be fixed or covered by moldings, and floors should be differentiated from walls by baseboards. Wherever categories meet, the boundary must be marked to keep the distinctions clear. (Kindle location 3392)
He mentions, as an example, how roads are clearly defined in societies influences by modernity. There is a clear demarcation as to what is road and what isn’t. In many societies, the road is part of the surrounding area; a path is a suggestion as to where to walk, not the only allowable walking space. (You see this tension in many developing nations, where lanes are clearly marked on roads, but those markings mean little to nothing to local drivers)
Hiebert then observes about the church:
In the church, too, cleanliness is of high value. Sanctuaries, dress, and the order of rituals must be clean and proper. We see this emphasis in the tension between relationships and cleanliness. If long-unseen friends appear at church, do we invite them to our home for lunch, although our house is dirty because we left in a hurry, or do we greet them and invite them to our house on another day, after we have had time to clean it? In many cases we do the next best thing, in terms of relationships: we invite them out to a restaurant dinner! (Kindle location 3396)
Where this becomes especially harmful is in missions situations. Missionaries see their way, modernity’s way, as the right way; it’s very difficult for them to give control to people not bound by the same notions of cleanliness and order. Hiebert says:
(Western missionaries) have tried to teach people to be on time; to construct straight walls; to paint without slopping on the window sills; to keep buildings clean; to plan for future activities; to keep accurate minutes and straight accounts; to stand in line; to maintain sharp borders on paths and roads; and to keep books, medicines, and other supplies in order on shelves. Their fear of chaos has often been a hindrance to turning work over to the nationals. They have been afraid that hospitals would become dirty, schools unorganized, churches disorderly, accounts irregular, and the order of the church chaotic if things are controlled by the local people. Moreover this distrust of the local people has undermined the missionaries’ credibility among them. (Kindle location 3414)
And these attitudes don’t go unnoticed by locals:
Christians in other lands are often confused by the Western obsession with order and Westerners’ lack of relational skills. Westerners rarely open their homes spontaneously to visitors. They are more interested in keeping possessions than in sharing them. They are often too busy doing things to take time just to sit and visit. For Christians in many non-Western societies, the central issue in Christianity is not right order but right relationships. The gospel to them is good news because it speaks of shalom—of a community in which harmonious relationships value human dignity, justice, love, peace, and concern for the lost and the marginalized. (Kindle location 3427)
All of this is very interesting to me because of how I’ve seen these things play out in me, in other missionaries, and in churches I’ve been around through the years. I marvel again at the obsession so many Christians my age have with resisting postmodernism while fully embracing the influence of modernity as if it were gospel.
Have you seen any of this?